As the cancellation of Algeria’s electoral process reaches its third anniversary this January, the conditions for a political settlement between the Islamist groups and the army-backed government are becoming exceedingly complicated. Even if the “moderate” voices within both the established order and the Islamist groups prevail, reconciliation may still not be attainable.

Algeria is a society divided against itself, and the divide is much deeper than many realize. What might have begun as a struggle within the power structure in October 1988, leading to the constitutional reform of 1989 and the general elections of 1990-1991, has since taken a turn with a logic of its own. The political contest today is more than a disagreement about power sharing, economic policies or the distribution of social goods. A fundamental dispute, generally repressed because of the formidable repercussions it entails, involves what language should be used to discuss these issues — language in the sense of authoritative interpretation and representation of the material world.

All parties to the conflict seem to believe that the privileging of one language at the expense of the other ultimately implies unconditional political surrender. Both the established order and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) doubt and reject each other’s languages as a legitimate medium to engage in a dialogue. Each discourse imposes its own rules of debate, prohibits other rationalizations, and claims neutrality and universality in translating the “real” problems facing Algerian society. Agreeing to speak in the nationalist language of the establishment or in the religious language of the FIS amounts to accepting the authority of one over the other.

The difficulty is that neither the nationalists nor the Islamists can claim to have articulated a sufficiently coherent political discourse to command legitimacy and authority. Such a “failing” has nothing to do with ethical qualms about imposing a totalizing political system. The competing discourses remain highly ideological, structured by absolute moral claims, and oblivious to the problem of subordination implied in the political order they seek to establish or maintain. The discursive strategy to blur the dichotomy between authority and autonomy, a strategy that lies at the core of political modernity, is simply not there. Why the current political discourse in Algeria, or for that matter the rest of the Arab world, cannot capture the problematic of authority is a mystery that this essay only begins to illuminate. It is in this sense that Algeria’s political crisis can also be understood as a problem of language and communication.

It would be helpful to begin our analysis by introducing what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls the differénd, an antagonistic dynamic between heterogeneous discourses that cannot be equitably resolved by applying an a priori rule of judgment. Any such judgment, he says, is at best partial, because “the rules of the genre of discourse by which one judges are not those of the judged genre or genres of discourse.” [1] Lyotard is explicit about the implications of such a judgment:

A case of differénd between two parties takes place when the “regulation” of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom. [2]

Lyotard is writing to explain his own differénd with the Socialisme ou Barbarie group when he began to doubt the explanatory power of Marxism’s dialectic logic. [3] He explains that they “no longer shared a common language in which [they] could explain or even express [their] disagreements.” [4]

Lyotard’s disagreement is not with content, but in Algeria the protagonists may not even agree on this. The duty of enjoining what is proper and forbidding what is reprehensible (al-amr bil-ma‘ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar), the basis of the FIS’ vision of an Islamic state, and the principles which inform the Tripoli Program of 1962, the Agrarian Charter of 1971 or even the 1989 constitution, address different matters and obey different epistemologies. [5]

The FIS leaders are ultimately concerned with legitimating the “moral guardianship” of political office on the basis of the most literal Hanbali interpretation of the Qur’an, which holds that devout leaders are less likely to abuse power. According to this logic, Algeria’s social and economic problems would be solved if the religious teachings of the salaf (predecessors) are strictly enforced by a state whose primary function is to legislate religious morality. Such a conception of political authority is structured by what the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad al-Jabri calls an “explicative mode of knowledge” that dominated the formative period of Islamic disciplines, from grammar and rhetoric to jurisprudence and theology. The production of knowledge in this paradigm, according to al-Jabri, takes place through analogical reasoning and the subordination of the present to the past (kiyas al-shahid ‘ala al-ra’ib). It is a paradigm that remains unconscious of its internal limitations, and denies the need for renewal in the name of self-sufficiency and adaptation to contemporary problems without tampering with the sacred. [6]

Logics of Power

At the special July 1991 FIS congress in Batna, it seemed that this salafi trend within the movement would be supplanted by the modernist djezara (Algerianist) tendency. Discussion centered around the question of whether the FIS should participate in the electoral process, and the likely political outcome. But the congress remained loyal to Ali Ben Hadj, the most immovable Hanbali; the question of participating in elections was perhaps a tactical concern, but not one warranting a change in doctrine. The FIS’s decision a few months later to participate in the elections even while its leaders were in prison was a political overture to the government. But what happened at the Batna congress is a far cry from the serious debate one would expect from a doctrinal endorsement of modernism or a new outlook on the role of religion in contemporary Algerian society.

That some FIS leaders identify with the modernism and humanism of Malek Bennabi does not mean that they have broken away from the analogy paradigm. Claiming to be modern and well-versed in the physical sciences does not imply a rupture with the epistemological structure of ‘ulum al-bayan, the disciplines of explication, when it comes to social or political issues and does not provide a solution to the obvious epistemological crisis of Islamic thought. Ben Hadj’s frontal attacks in al-Munqid and the threats to excommunicate anyone who might not agree with a literal interpretation of the Qur’an suggest that the crisis of Islamic discourse is repressed within the ranks of the FIS.

The political discourse of the National Liberation Front (FLN), on the other hand, presents itself as an ambiguous fixture of two sets of principles stemming from Algeria’s colonial situation. At one level, the assertion of Algeria’s Islamic identity after 130 years of French domination operated within the framework of islahi (Islamic reformist) thought. But the islah movement, al-Jabri tells us, is also prisoner of the analogy paradigm. [7] The differend between the islah movement and the ideology of the FLN state became immediately apparent when the Boumedienne regime reduced the ‘ulama’ to an agency for legitimating state capitalism under the slogans of nationalization, self-management and agrarian revolution. The FLN’s nationalization of the religious sphere did not mean a serious consideration of Algeria’s Islamic heritage nor a reflection on the role of religion in society. The regime’s appropriation of religious space was an instrumental move to legitimate the political order until “industrializing industry” and hydrocarbon receipts generated enough rent and jobs for social welfarism.

The ambiguity of the FLN’s discourse — it relied on principles taken from one universe to legitimate policies and programs borrowed from another universe — reflects an epistemological crisis of Arab nationalist thought, of which Boumediennism, Nasserism and Baathism were variants. Its constitutive categories are not always harmonious or coherent. The FLN proclaims socialism but denies social conflict. It is obsessed with revolutionary nationalism but requires unanimity and conformity. It speaks of democracy but refuses competition and negotiation, and is threatened by diversity. The FLN’s discourse subordinates the logic of politics and economics to the logic of power, the autonomy of the individual to the will of the state, and the societal project to ideology. What is striking is that the the FLN, like the FIS, seems unaware of the internal limitations of their political discourse.

For Lyotard, accepting a debate on Marxian terms implied a recognition that “language was above suspicion and that the Marxist phrase was legitimate by its very position.” [8] In Algeria, those opposed to the Islamist alternative — nationalists and secular democrats — are not even familiar with Ibn Hanbal or Ibn Taymiyya, whose work structures the political discourse of the FIS, let alone capable of engaging in a meaningful dialogue using that language. One area where opponents could contest Islamist discourse is in the application of principles taken from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence on a predominantly Maliki society. This contravenes the central Islamic concept of ijma‘ (consensus). Yet no such objections are heard when Islamist militants used various forms of intimidation to prohibit practices protected by the Maliki concept of maslaha, which allows innovations deemed beneficial to the community. Clearly, those opposed to the Islamist project feel that formulating such objections implies accepting the discursive conventions of the adversary.

Algeria’s differénd is doubly articulated at the level of language and at the level of referent (a subject of discussion that commands attention precisely because a specific genre of discourse makes it a worthy topic). In this situation, both adversaries are exposed to the injustice of unfair trials and partial judgments.

A closer examination of the political discourses of the FLN and the FIS reveals a remarkable similarity of political strategies. [9] In both cases, there is a taken-for-granted moral or patriotic consensus, within which the individual and the group are unequivocally subordinated. Both display a general obsession with unity and uniformity, and both privilege populism and volunteerism as a means for political mobilization. But these similarities are unlikely to bridge their differend. In present circumstances, the most the two protagonists can hope for is a negotiated or imposed political surrender rather than the elaboration of a new “social contract” expressing common principles in a common language.

What is interesting is how the divergent conceptions of political authority dramatize the differénd. In the case of the FLN, the legitimation of authority takes place through political control of the economic sphere for the distribution of social goods. The FIS, on the other hand, privileges political action in the social sphere, seeking to legitimate political authority by publicly enforcing Islamic moral values.

The Language of Established Order

To analyze the FLN’s discourse, it is appropriate to go back to Frantz Fanon. This emphasizes the imprint of the colonial struggle on the FLN’s vision. “While in many colonial countries it is the independence acquired by a party that progressively informs the diffused national consciousness of the people,” Fanon writes, “in Algeria it is the national consciousness, the collective sufferings and terrors that make it inevitable that the people must take its destiny into its own hands.” [10]

Fanon’s identification of Algerian “national consciousness” with “collective suffering,” and his minimization of the role of the party in the formation of an Algerian nation are crucial to understanding how, five years later, the FLN began to present itself to the Algerian people. [11] The party as an instrument of political power, the state as an arena for legitimating political authority, and the individual as a citizen with political and juridical rights — these were forbidden conceptual categories. This ideological construction is clearly articulated in three fundamental documents: the 1962 Tripoli Program, the 1964 Charter of Algiers and the 1976 National Charter.

The FLN, like many other political parties, defines itself as an all-encompassing movement with a universal mission. Since its official manifestation in November 1954, it has stressed the “unifying” and “unanimous” character of its ideology by declaring itself above all other political parties — notably the Parti du Peuple Algerien and its legal branch, the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertes Democratiques. FLN founders appealed to all militants, including those associated with the Parti, but they appealed to them as “patriotic individuals.” The November 1954 proclamation defines the FLN as a movement that negates party politics and social differences, and ultimately places the FLN as the only legitimate representative and authoritative interlocutor.

This ideology was certainly effective for mobilizing Algerians during more than seven years of anti-colonial struggle, but its contradictions became apparent soon after independence in 1962. “National consciousness” was no longer sufficient to mobilize people for the project of socialism and social modernization. A vanguard political party — the very agency that Fanon thought unnecessary — became a political imperative. But the FLN continued to subordinate the new developmental objectives to a voluntarist, populist ideology where questions about power distribution, political legitimacy and individual autonomy were simply discarded. Confronting these issues would have risked losing the power monopoly in the face of the social, regional, ethnic and gender differences repressed during the anti-colonial struggle.

Until the 1989 constitutional amendments, various texts of the Algerian republic continued to designate the FLN, the state and the citizen as identical correlatives. In the National Charter of 1976, for instance:

The National Liberation Front is the single party of the Algerian state. It is the avant-garde force which directs and organizes the people in order to achieve the objectives of the socialist revolution. The party ensures the permanent mobilization of the people; provides ideological education to the masses; and serves as an organizational framework to establish the socialist society. The unity of the Party and the State is the embodiment of the political direction of the country. In the framework of this unity, it is the leadership of the Party that provides direction and orientation to the general policy of the country.

The framework of this unity implied the subordination of the “citizen” to the FLN-state power structure. And in the framework of this unity, democracy did not mean “the expansion of individual liberties” mentioned in the 1962 Tripoli Program; here the association of democracy with individual liberties is dismissed as a “simple theoretical speculation.” In post-colonial Algeria, “Democracy [means] above all the collective expression of popular responsibility.” Even if these principles were popularly accepted, their formulation was so broad and vague as to leave much room for manipulation and arbitrariness. As a reward, loyal Algerians were promised permanent jobs, free health care and education, affordable housing, social justice, and equality before the law. In the 1976 constitution, “The state is responsible for the living conditions of all citizens, and secures their material and moral needs.”

The Language of the FIS

The FLN state’s failure to fulfill its part of the bargain — deliver social and economic goods in exchange for political fidelity — has been successfully exploited by the FIS. At its foundation in 1989, the FIS defined its objective as one of building a “messianic, historic, civilizational and universal society.” [12] Founder Abassi Madani summarized the party’s mission to establish the ideal society in three functions. The first is doctrinal. “Our party is Islamic,” said Madani, “because its content, method and historic function are established according to Islamic tradition. Islam is at once an objective and a model for change and reform. Islam is our raison d’etre, the continuity of our being, the being of the best of nations.” The second duty Madani assigns to the party is spiritual, if not frankly eschatological: “The virtue of ‘salvation’ that the party embraces represents an apostolic function…. It is the salvation of all to become one.” The third function is political:

The party is a “front” because it confronts. It operates through a wide range of domains and actions. It is the Front of the Algerian people, with all its social strata and over its vast territory. From the rich diversity of orientations and ideas of the people, the party seeks to build a coherent unity of interests, of positions, of accords. Our unity is the unity of common destiny. [13]

It is from these three functions that the party takes its Arabic name, al-Jabha al-Islamiyya lil-Inqadh. Its fundamental organizing principle is taken straight from a Qur’anic verse: “You are the best community brought forth for mankind, enjoining what is proper and forbidding what is reprehensible and believing in God.” (Surat Ahl ‘Imran: 103). [14]

The conflict in Algeria is not between “good” and “evil.” Ironically, if there is a normative statement to be made about the Algerian situation, it would be to deplore the inability of either side to manufacture a sufficiently coherent and modern political “lie.” This is an awkward complaint to make against an established order which has made “national liberation” a driving cause and against an opposition movement which proclaims “enjoining what is good” an organizing principle. But the order of morality and ethics cannot obscure a fundamental constitutive element of the modern political order: the modern citizen’s belief that authority and sovereignty are somehow confounded. The inability to manufacture such a “lie” may well be at the core of the crisis of political modernity in Algeria as well as in the rest of the Arab world.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for its generous support for my research on Algeria.


[1] Jean Francois Lyotard, The Differénd: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. xi.
[2] Ibid., p. 9.
[3] “A Memorial to Marxism” in Jean Francois Lyotard, Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 45-75.
[4] Ibid., p. 49.
[5] This theme appeared in almost every issue of al-Munqid, the official newspaper of the FIS.
[6] Muhammad al-Jabri, Takwin al-‘Aql al-‘Arabi, vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar al-Tali‘a, 1985), chapters 4-6.
[7] Muhammad al-Jabri, al-Khitab al-‘Arabi al-Mu‘asir (Beirut: Dar al-Tali‘a, 1985).
[8] Peregrinations, p. 52.
[9] The process of legislative reforms and democratization that began in Algeria after October 1988 did not lead to a rupture with the FLN’s political heritage. The political actors who presided over the liberalization process were often part of the seraglio.
[10] Frantz Fanon, Studies in a Dying Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1965), p. 28.
[11] For the centrality and problematic use of the concept of “nation” in Fanon’s writings see John Mowitt, “Algerian Nation: Fanon’s Fetish,” Cultural Critique 22 (Fall 1992).
[12] Al-Munqid 1 (October 1989).
[13] Interview with al-Masar al-Maghribi, Mars 1990. This part of the interview is reproduced in Mustapha al-Ahnaf et al, L’Algérie par ses Islamistes (Paris: Editions Karthala, 1991), p.31.
[14] Al-Munqid, various issues.

How to cite this article:

Abdeslam Maghraoui "Algeria’s Battle of Two Languages," Middle East Report 192 (January/February 1995).

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